This sermon was offered by Rev. Sara Keeling (WSUMC Associate 2008-2011) as part of the 170th Anniversary Celebration.
Per usual, the Pharisees are grumbling about Jesus. Not only does Jesus tolerate tax collectors and sinners, but he welcomes them. He sits with them. He eats with them.
And in response, Jesus says, well, if you were scandalized by that, let me tell you a bit about God’s priorities.
He tells a story about one lost sheep out of 100. And the lost coin out of 10.
Now most shepherds and farmers know that when it comes to animals, you just loose some. They die. They run away. They get lost. You let them go. You certainly don’t go back and risk it all for one. You also, most definitely don’t celebrate over that one dumb lost sheep being found. Because it was dispensable in the first place.
Same business with the coin. We lose money every day. A loose coin in the couch. A dollar here and there. Interest fees. And we don’t track that down. And when a penny is found, we also definitely do not celebrate. We don’t call our friends to tell them, we don’t throw a party.
We lose a lot of things. We throw away a lot of things. So much in our lives is disposable and replaceable and we have trouble imaging celebrating over something so small and insignificant.
Just like the religious elite who couldn’t imagine Jesus – whom they knew to be a popular Rabbi and teacher, if not the son of God – sitting around and even eating with the people who were disposable trash in their society. Tax collectors and sinners? Lepers and prostitutes? Immigrants and gay people? Who needs them? Who cares to speak to them? Who certainly cares to sit down and share a meal with them?
Jesus ate with the people we’d like to avoid and pretend don’t exist.
It’s like a grand historic church, with a mighty pipe organ, and beautiful stained glass windows, serving breakfast twice a week, to just about anyone in the community who needs it. It’s outrageous.
This church. This Community of the Faithful. This Family of God. This beautiful, proud, complicated, faithful, church is 170 years old. And here we are. Celebrating.
I thought I’d give you the highlights of each of those 170 years. I hear there’s cake, and I hope you’re not hungry.
Washington Street Methodist Episcopal Church South was founded before the Civil War.
In its “Golden Days” Washington Street was a huge church with well over 2000 members in the 1960s.
We might not have had the claim to fame as Christ Church does of being the church of George Washington, but this has been a church of faithfulness and ministry, of missions and Christian education, of healed hearts and changed lives.
I served here for 3 years. A mere blip on the timeline of 170 years. I may not have met some of you personally, but we are part of the same story.
And because I lived and served, and did ministry and life with this community for three years … three years that were beautiful years full of painful work … and I learned how to truly be a pastor. I learned how to preach, and how to lead, and a few things not to do. How to love a congregation of very different people.But in the midst of all that goodness, there was an undercurrent.
I speak this bit of truth, with love in my heart, and no desire to hurt you, but honestly, we were a hot mess.
We had at least one council meeting that included yelling. We had a charge conference that did as well. And many other committee meetings, especially trustees meetings that were just so tense as we struggled to hold on to who and what this church had been and was becoming.
We still didn’t quite know what to do with the education building or the stash of plans we had for the sanctuary building. We could not afford to bring that building up to code, let alone make it properly useable. And we couldn’t agree on what to do. Just sell it? Or magically wish that it would be 1953 again? You know just the right pastor or music program might bring another 2000 people back to Washington Street.
I would dream of meetings, especially trustees meetings. I would wake up with a heavy feeling on my chest.
Around that time, Lovett Weems at Wesley Theological Seminary. Knowing that membership and attendance numbers aren’t always good measures of vitality: asked the famous question: if your church were to close today, who other than the congregation, would miss it?
And honestly, we didn’t have the answer. Something was said about our historic music program. And someone said something about the preschool and Montessori school.We didn’t have anything really. The people already here, were the ones who would miss it. We were not contributing in any significant way to our community. We were stressed over money and property and membership numbers. We were grieving and stressed.
We had failed to be an obedient church. We knew how to worship well, but we also knew how to argue well.
We had not done your will; we had broken your law. We didn’t know how to take care of ourselves, or how to provide for our children. And everything else that’s important to a church, mission and discipleship, was kind of up in the air.
We had rebelled against your love; we had not loved our neighbors; and we had not heard the cry of the needy. We didn’t know how to help our neighbors. We didn’t know how to be in our community – we wanted people to come, for sure, but as long as they liked our style of music, and wouldn’t change us or ask too much of us. But we didn’t know how to go to them. And we had no idea how to own our history as a Methodist Episcopal Church of the South and how to form any meaningful relationship with our sister church down the street.
Since 1964, this church had lost 500 members every decade. By that math, membership should be at zero today, and this should be service of leave taking and deconsecration.
10 years ago, Washington Street was a small church living with a large mentality and legacy.In many ways we still wanted to be that grand church with the soaring music and the high attendance and to be able to use the words “fine” or “great” to describe everything that we did and all that we are.
We tended to gloss over any history before the 1950s. We glossed over when Washington Street had been a much smaller church. We glossed over when and why it was truly founded in the first place.
We might be able to dance around the institution of slavery as a reason for our nation’s Civil War, but we can’t do that when it comes to the split of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844.
When Leonidas Rosser, wrote letters and preached throughout the South to raise his $10K in 8 months he told a story, not of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the need to preach that Good News, and tend to the poor and hungry and forgotten. He told a story of Northern interference in the ways of life in the South. I’m not sure he ever mentioned the word slavery in his letters, but he didn’t have to.
Methodists in Alexandria in 1849 couldn’t ignore the realities of slavery even if they had wanted to. In Old Town, slavery was a reality; enslaved African Americans were lead through the streets, held in slave pens, auctioned off, bought and sold through an elaborate network of connections throughout the south.
The same sort of financial networks that funded this church.
This is a church founded, not to spread the message of Jesus to more people. Not to win souls for Jesus. Not to proclaim the gospel or teach the Bible or tend to the poor. But to stand in solidarity with the portion of the church that wanted to support the institution of slavery.
Not a happy little church plant.
God may not have needed a church on Washington Street to splinter off from Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church in this manner and for these reasons.
But a church was planted and grew here anyway. God takes what is planted and can twist and prune it for good. Even a church built on money soaked in the blood of black slaves.
This is a church that has carried out God’s Mission for 170 years. If you do the math, that’s 8840 Sundays. Now we have not worshipped here every Sunday, because there has been snow and ice. And we all know you do not drive in Alexandria when there’s ice. I know there’s least one time that the water main broke, and we had to cancel. And then there’s a few years during the Civil War.
Just imagine though, 8800 Sundays. Imagine the amount of hymns sung in this space. Prayers prayed. Scripture read. Sermons preached. Funerals and weddings. And Communion. Candles lit. Missionaries sent. Friendships formed. Bizarres and talent shows and cake walks. Hearts warmed. Souls saved. Lives changed.
Washington Street is not unlike that lost sheep or coin. Sure there are a gazillion churches, even UMCs … and God could spare one, could just let this one go and close. Many churches do close and the earth continues to spin and God is still God. There are still many challenges here, for a church in Old Town with no parking spots. For a church, a Methodist Church in 2019, waiting on General Conference 2020.
That is to say in the coming years, we do not know what United Methodism will look like, or what we will be called. Or what more harm will be done in the meantime.
We can however acknowledge the harm already done. The harm done during the time when Washington Street Methodist Episcopal Church South was planted. The harm done when that part of our history has been white washed over and denied. The harm done that it has taken nearly 170 years to have a truly meaningful relationship with Roberts Memorial.
We can also acknowledge the many trials and faithful decisions and dreams realized that have led to this day.
Because look at you. Look at who you are, and who you have become. Look at what God is doing here! Look at what you are doing for God’s Kingdom!
We started the Open Table with a lot of eager volunteers, and I think we had one guest that first Monday morning for a pot of coffee, and some granola bars, and some fruit . . . and now you’re serving much more than just breakfast, and its 2 mornings a week. You’re in the community, and you’re partnering with other churches and schools. The building renovations are just phenomenal. In many ways, I can’t believe this is the same church.
And yet, of course it is. Because the years of stress, grief, loss have led to this. A smaller, but more vibrant church. One that is more real, more authentic, more brave, and more faithful.
We can honor the faithful bravery with which you reach out and serve the community. The ways that you continue to dream and imagine and pray to be not the church of yesterday, but the church of tomorrow.
And we celebrate that not only in spite of the odds, but maybe because of them, that Washington Street is not only still here, but is strong and healthy, fighting and thriving to be a faithful witness to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in the world.
Not in spite of our history. But because of it. Because through it all, through all the ages, God’s grace is reckless and extravagant. If your doors closed today for good, an awful lot of people in this community, not just inside this room, would miss you. And the kingdom of God would be poorer for it.
The Pharisees assumed Jesus ought to be dining with the important, the wealthy, the powerful. And yet Jesus always chooses the sinners, the outcast, the least, the lost.
Often, we have to lose our lives to find lives. And the same is sometimes true of our churches.
We are here. You are dreaming together. You are thriving. You have been found. Thanks to God’s mighty, reckless, extravagant grace, you have been found.
We’ll share a meal today. A meal for all of us sinners. Because we are here, and this is our story: a story of who we were, who we are, and who we shall become.
A story of redemption: If God could use the Roman cross and symbols of oppression, God can and certainly does use a church built with the money of slaveholders, to tell a new story, a story of reconciliation, a story of love in action, a story of community, a story of forgiveness, a story of sacrifice and love.
A story of resurrection.